The Hard Times of RJ Berger
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Mistress Masquerade

By: Juliet Landon

Chapter One

London. June 1814

Lowering his morning newspaper with a loud crackle, Lord Benistone put down his magnifying lens and stared vacantly at the pot of marmalade, then across at his three daughters. ‘Poor unfortunate woman,’ he muttered. Two of them knew by the way he spoke that he was more likely to be thinking of their mother at that moment than the woman who featured, yet again, in The Times.

‘Obituaries?’ said Annemarie, his second eldest.

His eyes warmed at her assumption. ‘No, love. Not obituaries. Lady Emma Hamilton again. Another sale. She can have little more to sell now. You should go, Annemarie.’

‘To an auction? I think not, Papa. All the world will be there.’

‘I could request a private view for you. I can send a note to Parke at Christie’s. He’d allow it. I know you’d like something of hers, wouldn’t you? A memento? As an admirer?’

He’d got it wrong. Words of feeling were not his strong point. ‘Not so much admiration as sympathy,’ she said, ‘for the way she’s been treated since Lord Nelson’s death. All those wealthy friends and greedy relatives, and not one of them willing to help her out of her debts. She must be desperate by now.’

Her younger sister Marguerite’s opinion was only to be expected, particularly on a subject about which she knew little. At sixteen-and-a-half, she had still not learned the art of discretion. ‘I shall not be wasting my sympathy on a woman like that,’ she said, pushing her half-eaten breakfast away. ‘She’s brought it all on herself.’

It took much to make their father angry, but this hit a raw nerve and his hard stare at his youngest daughter would have made a bold man quake. ‘Marguerite,’ he said, softly, ‘I wish you would try to acquire the habit of thinking before you speak before it’s too late to make a lady of you. For one thing, no woman brings it all on herself. And for another thing....tch! Never mind. You wouldn’t understand.’

Even Marguerite knew then that he was thinking of their mother.

Oriel, the eldest sister, glanced at her sideways and pushed the plate back into place with one finger. ‘Unladylike,’ she said. ‘And I think an apology is called for.’

‘I’m sorry, Papa,’ Marguerite whispered. ‘I spoke rashly.’

‘No harm, child,’ he said, nodding. ‘No harm.’ The morning sun caught the top of his silvery hair as he looked again at Christie’s announcement. ‘You go and take a look, Annemarie. I don’t know whether she’ll have saved the best or the rubbish till last, but you may find something to take down to Brighton with you.’ At sixty-eight he was still a handsome man, in spite of the lack of exercise.

‘What are you looking for?’ said Oriel. ‘I wouldn’t have thought anything of Lady Hamilton’s would be to your taste. A little too flashy, perhaps?’

‘I’ve no idea. Something small, I suppose.’

Annemarie saw the flicker of amusement pass across her father’s face at that. There was barely a square inch of space at their Montague Street home that was not occupied by his well-known collection of antiquities, and he knew as well as she that by sending her to Christie’s auction rooms in his stead, his own curiosity would be assuaged without the temptation to buy. Even Lady Hamilton’s last pieces would reveal something of quality, if not rarity, for she and Lord Nelson had been presented with gifts from every corner of the world. Annemarie was due to return to her own house at Brighton the next day, so it seemed like a last chance to find something that would fit. Something small.

* * *

Only one hour later, a note was delivered to Montague Street assuring Lord Benistone that Mr Parke, Christie’s senior valuer, would be delighted to show Lady Annemarie Golding over the most recent acquisitions.

* * *

So it was that, by mid-afternoon, she had chosen not the small thing she’d intended, but one of a pair of matching bureau dressing-tables made by the elder Chippendale, no longer in the height of Regency fashion but exactly what she needed for her bedroom. She would have bought its twin also, but did not need two of them as Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson apparently had. Widows such as herself only needed one of anything. The generous price of it, however, was certain to relieve the poor lady’s acute embarrassment more than all the other clutter she was selling, except for its twin which Mr Parke assured Lady Golding he would sell for at least as much. Even so, he pointed out that he knew of no one who would want to purchase the pair and was relieved to have got one of them out of the way so quickly.

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